WASHINGTON — A new bill from Sen. Patty Murray would create a $50 billion fund to support child care, a critical sector of the economy that has been hit hard by COVID-19 and will be essential to efforts for parents to return to work.
The proposal is part of a larger, $430 billion package Murray unveiled June 30 that also includes funding for K-12 and higher education.
The Washington lawmaker, the top Democrat on the Senate committee charged with health and education issues, said on a call with reporters Thursday she is working to include her legislation in the next pandemic relief package, which senators are expected to tackle next week after returning from a two-week recess.
"If the federal government does not step up and provide support, we are at risk of losing 4.5 million child care spots nationwide, including over 42,000 right here in Washington state," Murray said. "That means front-line workers won't be able to access the child care they need to be able to go to work, and families won't have child care to return to as our communities try to reopen."
The $50 billion would be disbursed to child care providers through grants intended to offset their higher costs and lower revenue due to the pandemic.
Luc Jasmin III, the owner of Parkview Early Learning Center in Spokane, joined Murray on the press call and emphasized the financial strain businesses like his are under.
"Before COVID hit, the child care industry was already in crisis," said Jasmin, who is also president of the Washington Childcare Centers Association. "Many of my colleagues, child care center owners, went out of business in the last few years because of rising costs for parents and for them as providers."
The virus brought additional costs in the form of both hiring more staff -- in order to meet public health guidelines requiring smaller groups and more distance between children -- and providing personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies to keep children, parents and staff safe.
Nicole Sohn, co-owner of Journey Discovery Center in Spokane, estimated that her company's costs have gone up by 20% during the pandemic. She said the center, which cares for 89 kids at full capacity, scaled back to just 12, all children of essential workers. They have since expanded to about 60% of capacity, but Sohn said demand for spots is high.
"We have an incredible amount of people calling and emailing us daily," she said, adding that parents are already reserving spots for their children in 2021.
"We really feel a calling to our community to help support our Spokane workforce," Sohn said. "The stress and responsibility of being there for families is immense, and making sure to protect and support my teachers' mental health, it's an incredible challenge. At the same time, our teachers have shown up and rose to the occasion, far exceeding any expectation."
Sohn said her business secured a loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, part of the roughly $3 trillion in relief funds Congress passed in March, but the company is in need of more support.
Lawmakers' de facto deadline to negotiate another relief package both the Democrat-controlled House and GOP-controlled Senate can agree on is July 31, when the extra $600-a-week unemployment benefits lawmakers passed in March expire.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, has roundly dismissed a $3 trillion stimulus package House Democrats passed in May, saying the next phase of coronavirus relief should cost less than $1 trillion. Yet despite the vast gap between the two parties' visions, with states' and companies' finances in dire straits, a compromise appears likely.
Other child care proposals also have a chance of making it into a compromise package.
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, introduced a bill in December 2019 that would essentially let parents opt for an advance on the annual tax credits they are eligible to receive until a child turns 17, receiving $5,000 when a child is born or adopted in exchange for $500 less for the next 10 years.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican who introduced the same bill in the Senate, is reportedly working to include it in the next round of pandemic relief.
Cara Coon, vice president for communications at Greater Spokane Inc., said access to child care will be crucial to any economic recovery.
"Our region has been really in dire need of additional capabilities in our child care space, even pre-COVID," she said. "But what it has highlighted is that the relationship between our workforce and our child care -- you cannot break them apart. They are the same issue."
"Child care centers are small businesses as well," Coon said, and they need "access to the same relief and resources as any other small business."
While America's child care system is facing a crisis now, Sohn said the country should aim higher than just getting back to normal.
"I think Sen. Murray's bill is what is needed to stabilize and carry the child care industry through the COVID pandemic," Sohn said, adding that she hopes Congress will then pass more legislation to help the country "create and sustain a truly affordable and accessible childcare system in the future."
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